Yo La Tengo, Fade (Matador)
“And if that matters / it’s to very few,” Ira Kaplan murmurs two songs in, asking “is that enough?” before answering himself with a shrug: “well…..”. That’s a rather coy query coming from a band that’s never mattered to more than a very (if chosen) few and whose output has tended slight over the past ten years. Yet their slightness seems to be what sustains them - few other bands of such long-running good repute have insisted as winningly that inconsequentiality might be its own reward, especially when one’s artistic passions are inextricably tied up in one’s connubial bliss. So even though they’ve clearly abandoned plans to assemble their own Great American Songbook, if tempering their flame is what’s helped Ira and Georgia keep both band and marriage healthy, it’s not for want of addressing hard truths, like the pain at the center of all relationships (“The Point Of It”), or the claustrophobic comfort found within monogamy the imperfect vessel (“Paddle Forward”) or the surety of eventual loss (“Cornelia and Jane’s” “how can we hold on to you?”). Autumnal Hoboken, then, droning on and on, complete with strings that hardly intrude and guitar squalls that pass by too quickly, fighting off the melancholy with sheepish “doo-doo-doohs” on opener “Ohm” even while laying bare the issues foremost on their minds. “Sometimes the good times fade,” yep. “This isn’t the road we know,” nope. “Nothing ever stays the same,” ah, shit. “Resisting the flow,” good luck.
Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold (Dull Tools / What’s Your Rupture)
It doesn’t take much straining to hear echoes of Wire or the Feelies or, most especially, Pavement in these fifteen numbers, even if these New-Yorkers-via-Texas favor the kinds of tempos our Stockton boys started avoiding well before Wowee Zowee. With songs so clipped a five minute multi-verse number with guitar solo seems epic, Andrew Savage and Austin Brown find room for all the scattershot ideas they’ve scribbled into a no doubt well-worn notebook, many rather funny. “You know Socrates died in the fucking gutter,” Brown drawls (more David Lowery than Stephen Malkmus), after bragging about a thread count as high as his commissions. “Time was measured in balls of lint,” Savage reminisces even if “lamb’s tail shakes aren’t arbitrary marks”. Over jumpy rhythms and fumble-fingered guitar blasts, they gripe about Texas bagels, compare their true love to a summons ignored, and double-dip in the goose pâté. But they also push back against their shrink, ask the serf population of North Dakota to stand up and be counted, and survey the depressed job market awaiting them before taking a firm stance against a military-industrial complex that’s always hiring.
Vusi Mahlasela, Sing To The People (ATO/MapleMusic)
Known in his native South Africa as “The Voice,” and for good reason, even if one might prefer the goat-groans of Mahlathini or massed harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Mahlasela’s crystalline folksiness. His band on this Johannesburg concert recording serves largely as a cowed presence to shade and frame both those vocals and his front-and-center acoustic guitar, although every once in a while they assert the beat in a polite world-pop way. Hence, the Bruce Cockburn effect - a politically-thoughtful lilt whose pleasures fade soon after individual songs conclude. But even if odes to entire continents seem risky ventures, Africa remains a somewhat special case, and that line on world citizen anthem “Say Africa” about “sticks and stones and the U.N. loans” shores up Mahlasela’s professed love for Victor Jara.
Tracks: “Say Africa,” “Silang Mabele”
Christopher Owens, Lysandre
Gosh, sure hope Girls front guy Christopher Owens got some input from equal creative partner Chet White before announcing he was striking out solo. Or maybe White wasn’t any kind of creative partner, equal or otherwise - judging by the evidence on display here, White served mainly to deep six woodwind and reed overdubs. Still, this isn’t quite the same thing as a new Girls album, not least because it’s more dependent upon throwaways than either Album or Father, Son, Holy Ghost, or for that matter the Broken Dreams Club EP this twenty-eight minute supposed full-length is shorter than. Not that those previous statements didn’t traffic fairly heavily in fussily-arranged song sketches, too. But this is cute pastiche fetishism, right down to the four minute faux-exotica instrumental “Riviera Rock”. “What if I’m just a bad songwriter / and everything I say has been said before?” Owens worries, concluding, “Well, everything to say has been said before / and that’s not what makes or breaks a song.” He’s right. But there are better ways to justify a line like “don’t try to harsh my mellow”.
Tracks: “A Broken Heart”
Bruno Mars, Unorthodox Jukebox (Atlantic)
Sorry, I just don’t find this shallow cad to be charming or endearing, no matter how infectious he is on the Outlandos d’Amour steal of lead single “Locked Out Of Heaven,” which also winningly sexes up religious imagery until he’s begging his object of lust to open up her (no doubt pearly) gates. Thing is, he’s just another sweet-voiced panty hound who isn’t positive those blowjobs are worth the risk of some whore running off with his hard-earned cash. Lest you think this overstates the case, consider opening lament “you young wild girls / you’ll be the death of me,” or quick character sketch “Natalie,” the “Little Miss Snake Eyes” who “ruined my life” and “got me for everything”. Maybe those young wild girls (and how young exactly are we talking here, Mr. Wrong-Side-Of-Twenty-Five?) signify ironically, the way I hope the gorilla sex song is meant to and the way those young girls did in fellow cad Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”. But even Zevon’s “Excitable Boy” didn’t stoop to a line as loathsome as “I’m digging a ditch / for that gold-digging bitch”.
Tracks: “Locked Out Of Heaven”
This Is….NRA Country, Vol. 1
For the moment, ignore the dreary anthems to self-sufficiency and race war making up this year-old compilation whose proceeds go directly to funding our most reactionary and violent lobbying powerhouse. Focus instead on the mission statement embedded within the advertisements, which serves as a reminder of how the language of division and use of false dichotomies helps split the electorate. “The heart” of NRA Country? “Support of our U.S. military,” despite the fact that most active duty military prefer hip-hop and metal to Craig Morgan and Justin Moore, even while all the guest appearances and product placements in the world won’t help slow the suicide epidemic depleting the ranks. “Appreciation for the great outdoors,” as if the vast majority of country music fans and gun enthusiasts don’t dwell within a suburban / exurban environment that has ravaged mother nature as surely as Le Corbusier or Robert Moses. Plus, “love of family,” as insidious an example of codespeak as Paul Ryan’s dire warning that the “urban vote” shortchanged the past election. Then consider the implications of a Trace Adkins line like “there’s more of us than there are of them” on a song about “the people who hate my God,” Josh Thompson sneering at welfare recipients while pledging to greet with a loaded weapon anybody “not welcome” in his zip code, and Rodney Adkins good-naturedly detailing the ways his daughter’s potential suitors get introduced to his well-stocked arsenal. “Now it’s all for show/Ain’t nobody gonna get hurt,” he smiles, and one doesn’t need to question the Constitution’s guarantee to keep and bear arms to know that’s a deadly line of cornpone bullshit right there.